Thursday, December 27, 2012

Responding to People in Power

There are topics about which I feel confident and settled in my knowledge and experience to speak with a sense of inner authority. How we transform the legacy of millennia in learning how to respond to those in power eludes me. I keep thinking that I have a piece of the answer, and then I see even more fully how immense the challenge is. Nevertheless, I want to contribute my share to a conversation I didn’t start and which I hope can be ongoing in many circles as we come to see our complicity, both when we have formal power and when we don’t, with maintaining things as they are. I want this conversation to become bigger so that we can tap into our collective wisdom, beyond what I or any one person can offer. I share these thoughts with the humility of knowing I truly don’t know what the way forward is.

Milan Kundera in
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, speaks more than once about the fact that people in power shit just like everyone else. I remember being startled by the bluntness of this image. For myself, I have preferred a different way of aligning myself with the complete and radical shared humanity of all. I remind myself that whoever the person is I am thinking of was once an infant, and I immediately touch my hope that, at least then, that person was loved. Different as these two methods are, they both point to the same truth, though I doubt that Kundera shares my fervent desire for each person on the planet, including all those who have harmed others, to receive sufficient love that harm would stop. This, for me, is one aspect of being able to transform, within myself, how I respond to power. I want the well-being of the person in power even when I want to oust them from power, even when I want to do everything in my power to stop them from doing further harm. 

Gandhi and Mountbatten, last British Viceroy of India
I see this as key, because unless I am able to see the person in power as fully human, brother or sister to me, and unless I can truly wish for their well-being, I don’t believe I have fully liberated myself from the shackles of the consciousness of separation. I want that freedom as the foundation of discernment and choice about how to respond.

The discernment I am seeking is to form my own opinion about the person, free from stereotypes, reactivity, submission, or rebellion. I can entrust myself to a leader in a fully empowered way, knowing that I trust their integrity, vision, and care, and follow willingly and with full empowerment out of that trust. If I don’t find sufficient trust, I can take on the much tougher path of challenging authority with love. Just as much as entrustment is wildly different from submission, challenging authority with love is different from rebellion. And while entrustment is a dictionary word even if it is not commonly used, we don’t even have a word for the kind of challenge I am envisioning. It can take the form of embarking on winning the trust of a leader, becoming their ally in learning to transform their ways. My departed colleague and co-founder of BayNVC, Julie Greene, told a moving story of how she completely transformed her boss’s way of managing her simply by taking on an intention of responding to her boss empathically over months of suffering. Eventually, her boss stopped micromanaging her and their relationship flourished.

Challenging authority with love can take the form of saying “no” without giving up on the person’s humanity or dignity, either personally or collectively. This is my deepest understanding of what Gandhi did with the British authorities, and what enabled them to exit without losing face. The more we want to change the choices of those in power, and, finding them unwilling to join us in peaceful dialogue, the more we must use nonviolent resistance, the more essential it is that we maintain a stance of uncompromising love within our hearts. I see this commitment as the insurance policy that guarantees that our actions are never tainted by judgment or hatred, so that our use of force, when we engage in it, is entirely motivated by a desire to stop harm and create the conditions for dialogue and solutions that work for all, without hatred or desire for revenge. This is, no doubt, a tall order.

Love our leaders without idolizing them, stand up to dictators without hatred, change structures without war - those are the paradoxical challenges of responding to authority. I long for all of us to trust our own humanity, to have a sense of empowerment, to know we can participate in shaping what happens together with those in power. In short, to maintain, in full, both our own humanity and dignity and that of those in power, including those whose actions we abhor. It’s the only way I know to ensure we will not have throwaway people or new dictators.

What Makes It Hard to Reach People in Power?

As challenging as opening our hearts to those in power is, it’s not even enough! Our offer of love and understanding still needs to find its way to that person’s heart, and much of that journey is not ours to predict or control. I have written recently about my failure to support “Jonathan” effectively while working with his company. Considering how much Jonathan trusted me at the outset, and how far away we have moved from that trust, I know I have a lot of learning still ahead of me. None of it is simple. 

When I enter into dialogue with anyone, the fundamental premise of it is that through connection we can reach a state in which we both care about both of our needs, thereby forming a shared commitment to a solution that works for both of us. This frame depends on a profound kind of trust: that the other person is human like me. As this applied to Jonathan, for example, I was confident that he would be wholeheartedly committed to creating change once he truly understood the effect of his choices on those who worked in his company. I so completely underestimated the extent of his commitment to having things go his way. Early on, Jonathan said: “Having power means you rarely hear no.” For me, someone with a modest amount of power, this was a wakeup call, reinforcing my own commitment to be open to others’ “no,” even to invite it when there is a power difference between us. For him, I gradually learned, this was a source of comfort and ease: having power meant he didn’t have to negotiate, to show his vulnerability, to ask for what he needed and be in dialogue with others about it. He could just say it, and it would happen. I can see the seductive appeal, both in terms of this very personal level, and in terms of the ease of getting things done. I can see how the cost of his employees’ “yeses” becomes conveniently invisible.

Much has been written about what New York Magazine calls “ The Money-Empathy Gap” - the phenomenon of people with wealth showing less capacity for empathy, compassion, and even ethical behavior, and a higher preoccupation with their own well-being in disregard of others’. My own aha about this phenomenon came when I realized that rising up the ladder, even inheriting money and retaining it, require a willingness, at least to some degree, to get needs met at the expense of others. Sometimes this relationship is direct, as in the case of CEOs whose salaries are orders of magnitude higher than their employees, while at other times the relationship is indirect, even hidden, as in the overall willingness of all of us in affluent countries to get goods produced by devastatingly poor people in faraway countries.

Even though I knew all of this before meeting Jonathan, I didn’t in any way think strategically about what it meant for my relationship with him. I continued to anticipate and trust he would act “like me” and was repeatedly shocked to hear and see behavior that I could only interpret as lack of care. I am still unclear, even after many months of considering this fundamental failure on my part, what I could have done differently. What would be required in order to cross that loss of interest in others that seems to accompany, as both cause and effect, the acquisition of power and wealth?

The Path of Empathy

One possible way forward is to shift the balance from providing feedback to offering empathic understanding. This approach would be based on premise that when people feel fully heard, when they know they matter, they are more likely to be open to hearing from others. I have no doubt that I was providing too much feedback relative to empathy. What I don’t know is how much empathy would be sufficient to make room for the feedback. I am frightened to imagine that there may be people whose emotional needs are so high, whose concern with their own safety and well-being so consuming, and whose lack of trust so extreme that no amount of empathy would be sufficient to open their hearts. Is this fear my own lack of faith, or is it an accurate perception of the level of dysfunction in our money-driven society characterized by a class of CEOs, and especially those at the very top of the largest corporations, who are no longer able to connect empathically with others? If so, what hope would there be for anyone’s attempts to create connection and dialogue across power differences?

Part of the irony of this situation, as I see it, is that whenever someone “buys” their needs through others’ compliance based on fear or reward, they are bound to know, somewhere deep within, that they are outside the web of interdependence and love: those who serve them do not do it because of care. If this conjecture is accurate, then external power doesn’t necessarily feel powerful, which can reinforce the uncaring behavior on the part of those in power. That’s a lot to bridge through love and empathy, and most of us don’t have enough staying power, faith, or even capacity to create and sustain the relationships to create transformation in this way.

The Path of Nonviolent Resistance

Police in Selma, Alabama, block the civil rights march, 1965

The other path is the one taken by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others since: balancing the power of the few by the coming together of the many, thereby creating the conditions that would bring the powerful to the dialogue table.

Not every strike, rally, or sit-in action fits the stringent criteria of this kind of nonviolent resistance. As I understand Gandhi and MLK, they persisted all along in maintaining a loving presence toward the very people whose actions they sought to change. They continued to invite them to dialogue, and they never lost sight of aiming for a solution that would ultimately work for the powerful as well as the masses Gandhi and MLK mobilized. They successfully managed to stay away from “us-them” approaches even while putting enormous pressure on the systems they challenged.

A striking lack of "us-them" at the signing of the Civil Rights Act, 1965
This requirement to maintain a loving stance is only one of the challenges that this path presents. In the current climate of union busting, where the possibility and scope of activity of unions are progressively more restricted, it’s also more and more difficult to imagine how to apply nonviolent resistance within organizations. Even more significantly, dialogue, when successful, can take place between one individual and another, whereas nonviolent resistance requires the coordinated efforts of large groups of people. In the context of USA, in particular, the prospects for such activity have been grim for a while.

I don’t have answers. That’s what I keep coming back to. That’s almost always true. The purpose of this piece, in particular, was to raise questions, not to answer them; to seek companionship in framing the dilemma; to open conversations, hopefully not only my own.

I don’t know how we will reach the people in power. I only know that the task is essential if we are to survive these times and emerge as a species that thrives within the web of life on this planet.


  1. Your suggestion that those in power know somewhere in their being "that they are outside the web of interdependence and love" really struck me. What would it be like to live with a belief that what I have is always dependent on those who do not care for me, in fact may actively dislike me- what fear this could provoke, how it leads me to want to circle the wagons and make sure that these others cannot hurt me or what is mine, how it can easily lead to oppression of others! For me this is an important insight for understanding. Thank you.

  2. Miki,

    Michael Nagler talks about obstructive and constructive programs of nonviolence. I think what's needed, based on what I see in Gandhi's and MLK's movements, is a constructive program, one which builds a sense of community and a wide base of experienced solidarity, interconnectedness if you will. In short, what we need is some kind of "church."

    I have no idea how to do this, only a sense that a principled nonviolent community that is well-nourished in its commitment is essential. Sadly, as you have observed, in this era, in North America, experiences of community are lacking for many people.

    Shulamit in Ottawa

  3. Miki, thanks for this reflection, and for all your pieces that I've so enjoyed this year. This is off-piste although on second thoughts, maybe not. In my experience, those wielding most power are those closest to us - our dear young off-spring. And during this holiday period, this 'power imbalance' is something I'm much aware of, and trying to learn from instead of simply contracting round. So your statement struck me:
    'When I enter into dialogue with anyone, the fundamental premise of it is that through connection we can reach a state in which we both care about both of our needs'

    It seems to highlight the area I've found so challenging. Children don't generally care about the needs of others, at least not for a while. And I have a fear re 'obliging, considerate' children as many such kids that I know have been raised in codependent families, and their 'mature' emotional responses come at the price of control and manipulation. So, my very real question, arising from a great deal of pain, is how to negotiate when your premise doesn't hold? I'm currently (quite new to nvc) going down the self-empathy route, mourning my unmet needs, but i'm noting a strong desire to move beyond this; noting a painful lot of shoulding (as in a 12 year-old should be able to care and co-operate versus a 40+ year old should be more equanamous in the face of challenging behaviour. Sorry, this is long, but any tips to take into the new year would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Dear anonymous,

      I was just this morning writing about the complexity of the perception of parents' relationship to children. There is much too much to say about this in a response. I do plan to write more about this on the blog soon.

      For now, just one thought: ask your 12 year old what are her or his ideas for what would work for both of you. Tell them that you are trying as hard as you know to make it work for both of you, and that you are not finding a way. Can she or he help? Then see what happens.

      More will come.


  4. Hi Miki,

    You have in my opinion covered the ground -- including all the apparent dilemmas -- so thoroughly I find little to add.

    The small contribution I might make on what has helped me a little in moving closer to that space of not seeing "them" as other is to eliminate the language "people with power" or "people exercising 'power over' instead of 'power with'."

    This was not my idea (don't know who I took it from) but someone suggested rather than thinking about that person as 'having power over me' or having 'power over others' to think of them as 'having access to some resources I don't have access to."

    Those resources could include money, ability to phone armed people and "order" them to do certain things, access to information, access to registering a vote on a bill in congress, access to the ears and time and respect of people I might like to have such access to, etc.

    My experience is that the apparently "just semantic" act of changing that language actually , at least for me, takes some of the edge and separation.

    It ALSO potentially is a tack for conversation/connection along the lines of "I really would love you to use some of those incredible resources you have access to for XXXXXX and here's why it could be wonderful...."

    Alex Censor

    1. Dear Alex,

      I am so glad you liked what I wrote!

      I want to say that you may have heard these things from me in the first place, since I define power as "the capacity to mobilize resources to attend to needs" - thus making power itself a universal need.

      The distinction I draw is between having power and using power. power-over is a choice, a way of exercising power, not something we "have". What we have or don't have is structural power, which is systematic access to resources that others don't have, and the possibility of using that power over others. I tend to be careful in my language, and I didn't write "having power over" - though I DID write "having power" - because I do believe that, defined with clarity, power IS something we can have or not have.

      This is obviously a much longer conversation, and I am happy to engage in it here or elsewhere.

      So happy you commented!


  5. IN service to opening conversations I wonder when I read this piece, when you speak of "people in power", which people in power would you like to have an audience with and what would you want to be the content of the conversation?

    The people in power that I deal with and think about most is the people up the ladder in the medical industrial complex and how an individual patient in that system can find the power to get her needs met when those needs are not fully honored by the system she expects to care for her. The conversations I have with medical people as a patient advocate often revolve around fears of liability. Power and responsibility for outcome often go together. In order to leverage personal power in that situation those fears need to be acknowledged and addressed. Once they are I find that more options are possible.

    How about you?

  6. How is one to deal with someone who wields his/her influence for selfish ends without concern for the miseries this wielding fosters? I think, in part this is the dilemma you are posing in this essay. In practice, one is confronted by an individual person, in a particular relationship, and with particular circumstances, which contributes toward fashioning one's thoughts, speech, and actions. In theory, one can work on creating an attitude(s) that serves one's heart-felt longings or needs.

    As regards the practice part, I have discovered that some of the best results come spontaneously from a "place" of centeredness: love, empathy, courage, attention, appreciation and sensitivity. This can be likened to a baseball player fielding a position or in the batter's box having a sense of responsibility and a practiced sense of how to creatively respond to whatever may unfold.

    This discussion is about what I would call theory, which is important preparation for the practice and experimentation. I offer one concept into the mix. When dealing with others who are behaving poorly or immaturely, in most cases, one can always NOT FEED the behavior by not participating in it. Another way of thinking about it is not "dancing" with them. Consider people sitting around backbiting or gossiping. The relationship MAY seem not to suggest direct confrontation like saying, "Why are you people doing this?" or "This backbiting of so-and-so is making me feel badly." One can, however, always choose non-participation. One's inaction speaks out on a subtler level. It does not feed the behavior.

  7. I have very little interaction with people with extreme access to resources like Jonathan. I feel overwhelmed by the challenge of connecting with people who wield much less power and finding ways to relate.

    When I read this, I felt a chill: "I am frightened to imagine that there may be people whose emotional needs are so high, whose concern with their own safety and well-being so consuming, and whose lack of trust so extreme that no amount of empathy would be sufficient to open their hearts."

    I have this fear, too, though with people who are very disempowered, whose need for empathy is great because of great suffering and lack of power. Do you have a strategy suggestion for connecting with people like this when it is not about them having power over?

    1. Hi aftergadget,

      I don't have an answer I can easily relax into. I have some faith that in a future world, when we have figured out how to ensure that the overwhelming majority of people have their needs met as infants and children - to know that they matter, to be loved and acknowledged, to have mastery over shaping their lives, as a few examples - adults will not be in such need on such a frequent and growing basis. For now, with the level of isolation we have, it's hard to know how to respond to the immensity of the need when all of us have it to varying degrees. We are asked, collectively, to bootstrap ourselves out of a big swamp of unmet needs.

      I have accepted that there will be people I won't know how to provide sufficient love for, nor how to give sufficient clear and loving feedback to. Not even with the support of a loving community. It's wrenching to me when it happens.

      For more ordinary circumstances, I keep just looking for the balance between unconditional empathic presence, and the utter willingness to risk everything to tell someone the truth about how their actions affect me without judging them. It's the best medicine I know.


  8. "I am frightened to imagine that there may be people whose emotional needs are so high, whose concern with their own safety and well-being so consuming, and whose lack of trust so extreme that no amount of empathy would be sufficient to open their hearts."

    If you do a search for "Gabor Mate" and especially his book _In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts_ , you will see that there are many people like this in the word. And let me be so bold as to admit to being one of them. (However, I am not someone in a position of power and to some degree still manage to hold to the ideals of nonviolence.)

    While at some level I may well be yearning for empathy, on another level just to be seen is scary. (This that I am doing here is scary to me -- I go in scary directions sometimes.) There is a history of my mother using something that I cannot distinquish from empathy to search for tools with which to control me. In the hands of a sadist tuning into another's emotional states can enable them to get their wish of enjoying another's pain.

    Given this history of traumatizing emotional pain, even self-empathy is not a source of comfort. At least in the short term, it is not that. My usual technique is to go 'brainy' -- being in my head thinking about things that are not directly connected to me is as safe a place as I know how to find.

    In my understanding of how things work, the higher up a person is in the current power structure, the more instrumental the outlook of their family has been. People and families climb in the power structure because they are willing to use whatever opportunities are at hand for their own advantage.

    I have therefore (at least in part) transformed whatever envy I used to have of them into sadness for them. They are people who have never known what it is to be valued for themselves. They are people who have known very little love in their lives.

    They also do not fit the NVC assumption that human being enjoy contributing to the well-being of others (that is my opinion for what it is worth). I have in response to these central experiences in my own life, modified that assumption such that while most people do fit that assumption, not all do.

    I regret any discomfort these notions many be triggering.

    1. Dear Denise,

      I'm deeply touched by your sharing yourself so openly. I feel "met" in that willingness to go for truth that is so precious to me, and I am also so so sad that you endured these experiences growing up. I wish for you more and more connection with your beauty (which I experience through this email as unflinching honesty and surprising trust in the human spirit despite your mother's choices.)

      I want to address your inner conflict in regard to empathy -- a conflict that says, on one level, I yearn for it, and on another, I want protection from being seen so fully. First, I find your surfacing of this inner conflict to be exquisite self-awareness. I also very much understand how your experiences would leave you fearful and mistrusting of being seen and known. My heart breaks thinking of the little girl opening herself to her mother, and then experiencing such shock and emotional pain.

      As I am reflecting on what you share, I am grateful for this opportunity, because I see that there is something that empathy shares with what you experienced, although I see them as entirely different in intent. What they share is the insight into another's experience. The difference is that empathy, as I understand it and have taught it, is motivated by care, by interest in the well being of the other person, whereas what you experienced was the exact opposite. I will continue to reflect, I am sure, on whether one can lead to the other. Again, I notice my hope that you will find healing and trust.

      I also wanted to say that while I fully recognize that there are people for whom the care for others is blocked, even people who appear to enjoy other people's pain, it is my understanding and faith that this is the result of untold pain that those people have endured themselves. My own belief is that people enjoy contributing when they are free to do so, when they know they matter, when they have a sense of their own power and efficacy in the world.

      Enjoying others' pain, when it exists, is, for me, an expression of deeply unmet needs and much anguish - where the other's pain can be a way to experience power, to have one's own pain reflected back and relieved in that way, sometimes just to even know that one exists, or something else of that magnitude.

      If you or others reading this are interested in exploring these dynamics of sadism, I have learned a great deal from Jessica Benjamin, especially her book called "The Bonds of Love". While it is not at all about NVC, I found much of what she says consistent with my own understanding of human beings.

      Wishing you all the best, hoping for courage and solace for you.


  9. Want to add a comment about the prospects for nonviolent resistance in the U.S. being grim. While it is true that many forms of nonviolent resistance have not been "successful" insofar as their stated goals have not yet been reached, I would say it is too soon to say. There certainly are plenty of people who have engaged in nonviolent resistance in the last few years -- so it is not dead at all. Sometimes the "success" comes later -- see Bill Moyer's book Doing Democracy, where the stages of social change movements are described. It may seem most hopeless right before a big change happens. I think the problem is that there is not widespread training about what constitutes EFFECTIVE nonviolent social resistance. Organizations like Metta Center for Nonviolent Education and Pace e Bene have much to offer.

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  11. dear miki,
    thank you for sharing this so unreservedly...
    even before i started reading, i had a knot in my gut - out of fear, because this is such an important issue in my life.

    i was looking for answers. i was looking for a relief from the pain and fear i carry.

    you gave me no answers.
    but you gave me something even better.

    you gave me back my questions - to use them to look further into the darkness.
    and you gave me back the fear i wanted to unload, making me see that this fear is what will make me keep going into the darkness... with an understanding that the torch cannot light the whole way, just the next few steps.

    some questions, when worked with today, have answers and resolutions coming in another generation...

    there are 2 more specific things that popped up as possible 'ingredients in the mix':

    1. a person is using power to 'not deal' with his fear-causing 'alternate scenarios'.
    and, there are MORE people who are agreeing to that (irrespective of whether they see it or not) - because they are afraid of their own fear-causing alternate scenarios.

    so, there are more people - and so more energy - than 'jonathan' that keep the power-game going on. pulling the 'brick' jonathan' will not dismantle the building, it will lead to collapse.

    in practical terms, the question that came along with this was - are we offering a better / alternate way when we are seeking change? or will the change leave a kind of vacuum, which any system is bound to resist?

    2. another thought that popped was - jonathan is a system in himself - internally and externally - and not an 'individual'.
    he is what he is because of the ways various things come together and interact - whether inside himself, or in his environment.
    is he aware of those? can he be made aware of those? will that help him make choices that will seem like real choices rather than option-less forced choice?

    3. this thought came as an extension to the above one - that we are all small systems, that are part of a larger system. it reminded me of how we see things here in east (at least in india).

    children were not raised by one or even 2 parents. traditional wisdom said that children can be raised only IN the environment, BY the environment that he is going to be a part of. it is not, and can not be a task/responsibility of a single person.

    could 'changing' someone's behaviour be the same?

    can it be possible for one person (or one process) to bring about a change (even if it is in a person looking to change)? or does it require participation and support from all the actual parts of that person's life?

    would it have helped you if people affected by 'jonathan' joined you - if not WITH you, in an effort similar to yours?

    if we had answers to EVERYthing, we would never look forward to a tomorrow, would we?
    with that self-advice, i can say good-bye to you with a smile.

    1. dear miki,
      i had not read your article "The Extraordinary Challenge of Wanting to Create Change, Part 2: Beyond the Personal" when i wrote the above...


  12. I found this discussion to be interesting on many levels. I have come to the place after years of struggling with the power dynamic (and not seeing many changes)where I want to concentrate on relationships with those who are not part of the "power dynamic." It seems like a waste of time to try and influence people who get HUGE rewards for screwing others. They are really a very small sub-set of everyone on the planet and mostly males and mostly young until they make their money, the whole power over is a male/money/competition power circle for the most part. This is encouraged in our academic worlds (elite) and then in the money worlds. I would rather spend the rest of my time on this planet interacting and building networks of people who have a different set of values. I think overcoming this system through numbers of people and alternative living styles is our best hope. Once more people believe and use another form of living, then things have changed. I have empathy for the fat cats but choose to work with the truly suffering and struggling 99.9% of the worlds people. It is really much more fun and enjoyable.

  13. PS> That baby picture is very disturbing...for me it does not convey the message. Although the men who who have killed millions of babies were babies, their crimes beg us to remember them differently than a time when they were innocent.